- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2005

BEIRUT — The head of Lebanon’s military intelligence stepped aside yesterday and the prime minister is expected to resign for the second time in four weeks after failing to form a new Cabinet, signaling new gains for opposition against the country’s pro-Syrian leadership.

Maj. Gen. Raymond Azar, the military intelligence chief, decided to take a one-month leave, a senior military official said. Such administrative leaves often are a first step toward resignation.

Meanwhile, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara pledged to the United Nations yesterday that his country would withdraw all its intelligence and military forces from Lebanon before elections scheduled to be held there in April and May.

The pledge was made in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan dated yesterday.

The letter said longtime cooperation between Syria and Lebanon had enabled the former to decrease its troop presence to 10,000 from 40,000, “coupled with the full withdrawal of these troops before the forthcoming elections in Lebanon.”

Syrian and Lebanese military officials are scheduled to meet early next month to discuss a final withdrawal. The United Nations and the United States have demanded that all Syrian troops and intelligence officers leave before Lebanon’s elections.

The opposition has been demanding the resignations of Gen. Azar, four other security chiefs and the prosecutor general for purported negligence after the Feb. 14 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which sparked massive protests against Syria’s three-decade military presence in Lebanon.

Maj. Gen. George Houry, head of intelligence in the Mount Lebanon province, was appointed to fill Gen. Azar’s post in the meantime.

The development came hours after a Cabinet minister said caretaker Prime Minister Omar Karami will step down tomorrow, throwing doubts on whether the crucial elections can be held before parliament’s term ends May 31.

Mr. Karami was forced out of his post by massive protests in late February, but 10 days later President Emile Lahoud named him to create a new government in what was seen as a slap in the face to the opposition.

But after more than two weeks of efforts, Mr. Karami was unable to put together what he said he wanted to be a national unity government.

“Prime Minister Karami proposed all possible formulas to form a national unity Cabinet, but the opposition did not agree,” Environment Minister Wiam Wahhab said.

A government must be formed for elections to be held, because it must draw up an elections law for parliament to pass.

The opposition wants a neutral government aimed only at paving the way for the elections, in which the anti-Syrian movement is expected to triumph.

The priority is elections, not a new government, and “the opposition will facilitate the formation of any government that will help hold elections on time,” opposition member Samir Franjieh said.

In an interview in As-Safir newspaper yesterday, Mr. Karami said he has insisted on creating a national unity government.

“As long as these matters have not been achieved, I will inform President Lahoud of my decision to bow out,” Mr. Karami was quoted as saying.

Last week, Lebanon grudgingly agreed to let the United Nations take charge of appointing an investigation into the Hariri assassination.

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